Sarah T. Roberts specializes in studying commercial content moderators, the “unsung heroes” of the internet. They are the thousands of men and women who cull through what’s posted on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube and the like, to make sure it isn’t harmful to the 2 billion people who use these sites and apps.
Roberts, assistant professor of information studies in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, has researched content moderators and the toll their profession takes on their mental and emotional health. She has been studying the effects of content moderation since 2010 when she was on a fellowship at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that focused on the intersection of information, technology, society, media studies and sociology. She has shared her findings with people all over the world. Recently, Roberts consulted on and appears in the documentary film “The Cleaners,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival Jan. 19. At the festival, she presented alongside co-directors Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck at three standing-room–only viewings of the film where she was able to respond to the “thoughtful questions” from audience members.
How did you meet the filmmakers and get involved with the project?
I met co-director Moritz Riesewieck in Berlin in the spring of 2016. I had been invited to the Böll Stiftung — the Green Party’s think tank — to give a talk on my research regarding commercial content moderation and its implications for workers, and for the internet . Mortiz had followed my work and, a dramaturge and director, was working on his own one-man play on the topic. We ended up presenting our work back to back, which was the first time I had seen the topic of my academic life’s work showcased in such a creative and distinct way. It was a powerful experience. A few days later, we both spoke at re:publica, a major tech conference that takes place in Berlin each year.
What was your role with the film?
After his one-man show, Moritz developed his project first into a radio play and then, more ambitiously, he began to envision it as a documentary film that would still retain creative elements and aspects. He partnered with co-director Hans Block, who in turn fomented a relationship with well-known pan-European documentary production house Gebrüder Beetz. I was asked to work as an adviser and consultant on the project, and also to be an interview subject.
Did you think it would end up being selected for Sundance?
It’s really a dream come true for Moritz and Hans, and for the Gebrüder Beetz team. I am typically a cautious optimist in my own life, so I don’t like to get my hopes up too high and that way if it’s successful I’ll be pleasantly surprised. When I received word from Moritz, it was in a good news/bad news sort of way. The bad news was that he was not going to be able to attend the first-ever public conference on content moderation, just held at UCLA on Dec 6-7, but he told me the reason was because he and his team were getting ready for Sundance! I was elated for them. What terrific news!
Your work focused initially on commercial content moderation workers in Silicon Valley. How has the population of people you study changed? Does this documentary highlight all populations affected by CCM work?
In 2012, I started my field research by talking to workers across North America — in Silicon Valley, but also in New York City, in Canada and one even in Mexico. It quickly became clear to me that we were dealing with a global, and globalized, phenomenon and I had to go where the research took me. Like Moritz and Hans, I have also traveled to the Philippines to interview CCM workers there, and I absolutely think about populations all over the world and across cultures whose common bond is in the fact that they share these emotionally difficult, low-paid tasks. In order to get at the story, it must come full-circle back to Silicon Valley, to the social media platforms and firms who solicit the user-generated content that CCM workers screen. I expect that this film will make that relationship clear, whether or not these notoriously secretive firms offered up anyone in front of the camera or not.
What do you hope people will take away from the film?
Moritz and Hans definitely have their own vision and take on the issue of content moderation as a job, and that will be put to the fore in the film. That having been said, when I started looking at this topic as an area of research almost eight years ago, my humble and simple hope was that I might raise the collective consciousness about the fact that many people are doing this terrible and difficult work for a living, and they are doing it for the rest of us. It seems like the moment has finally arrived in which we can get to grips with that reality, and contend with the many implications of what they are being asked to do, by whom, and to whose benefit. My hope is always that these efforts will see improvement in the standards and working conditions for CCM workers, and an awareness that the work they do is not inconsequential or unimportant; quite the opposite.
What kind of effect do you think the movie will have on society?
The film is provocative and will undoubtedly raise many questions and spur much-needed dialogue, but importantly, it will also raise awareness about the workers who screen social media content and take on some of the most reprehensible forms of human expression on the behalf of the rest of us, workers whose lives I have traced and unveiled through my own research for the past eight years, in the face of an industry who would not acknowledge them.
At a larger scale, it should also provoke questions about the very economic model of mainstream commercial social media platforms and the architecture that supports it — one that rewards user engagement through the rush of likes or views all the way to the literal monetary rewards dispenses to the creators of extremely popular “user-generated content.” It’s a cycle that keeps us all coming back for more, while potentially driving us further apart, and whose ultimate social costs are only beginning to become apparent.